Do rats chase chocolate in your museum? Thoughts on organisational habituation.

Ed Rodley’s thought experiment on making a museum from scratch has only just started, but the responses to his initial post are provocative. Almost all of them question Ed’s initial assumptions about the scope and definition of the problem. After setting some conditional ground rules for the museum (it has about 200,000 objects, you have an old building in which they can be housed, and a big enough budget to get started, but you’ll need to be judicious with hiring etc), Ed’s starting place was the collection. He asked “Who are the audiences for this material and what are their needs?”

Instead of answering this question, however, almost all of the commenters have problematised the starting place of the inquiry. Why does this need to be a museum? If it is a museum, does the building necessarily have to be used for display? What kind of baggage comes with the collection that necessarily has to be dealt with before the museum can move forward? What is the museum’s mission, and how early into the process of creating the museum does it need this to be defined? Already the exercise has really brought home to me both the complexity of starting a project like this, and just how many assumptions we carry with us about museums. It has almost certainly brought such questions home to Ed too, since his second post seeks to address many of these questions.

But while I was thinking about this, a friend linked to a fascinating if slightly old article from the New York Times that explores consumer behaviour and the ways that companies target consumers. Amongst other things, it addresses the way behaviours become habituated and ingrained:

An M.I.T. neuroscientist named Ann Graybiel told me that she and her colleagues began exploring habits more than a decade ago by putting their wired rats into a T-shaped maze with chocolate at one end. The maze was structured so that each animal was positioned behind a barrier that opened after a loud click. The first time a rat was placed in the maze, it would usually wander slowly up and down the center aisle after the barrier slid away, sniffing in corners and scratching at walls. It appeared to smell the chocolate but couldn’t figure out how to find it. There was no discernible pattern in the rat’s meanderings and no indication it was working hard to find the treat.

The probes in the rats’ heads, however, told a different story. While each animal wandered through the maze, its brain was working furiously. Every time a rat sniffed the air or scratched a wall, the neurosensors inside the animal’s head exploded with activity. As the scientists repeated the experiment, again and again, the rats eventually stopped sniffing corners and making wrong turns and began to zip through the maze with more and more speed. And within their brains, something unexpected occurred: as each rat learned how to complete the maze more quickly, its mental activity decreased. As the path became more and more automatic — as it became a habit — the rats started thinking less and less.

It seems to me that right now, all of us who are participating in Ed’s thought experiment are like the rats with overstimulated neurosensors, trying to make sense of the maze of questions and possibilities of a new museum. We know there is a reward at the end (chocolate!), but the path to that reward is anything but clear. We are scratching at the walls, and trying to work out where the edges of the maze are. We are most engaged with the puzzle and most able to find new solutions.

But if this was a real situation, it likely wouldn’t be long before our behaviours habituated, and the thinking process was short-cut. In order to progress and move forward with the business of running a museum, rather than trying to solve every puzzle that comes up along the way to building a museum from scratch, there would surely be less and less opportunity for deep thinking and questioning of assumptions. As things progress, our organisational processes and behaviours become ingrained. They require less thought and make action faster. They are known and therefore likely safe. As a survival tactic, habituating behaviours make sense.

This is also likely one reason that museums continue to be modelled on similar ideas from one to the next. Doing so means that these difficult discussions that question every assumption can be circumvented. Rather than waging a near-constant intellectual battle, the business can pick a few key questions to concentrate on, and rely on habits and experience for the rest. But this also means that the process takes less thought and the outcomes are less likely to be substantially different from those that have come before. Is this why many museums fall back to default methods for dealing with their collections and publics? Is this why it is so hard to really challenge many of the ingrained organisational habits found in museums (or any business that accompanied by a legacy of tradition)? And if so, is there an alternative that might help staff within a museum find a balance between habits and critical thought?

Nina Simon just wrote a post about building a culture of experimentation in which staff are experimenters who are “driven by the desire to try things out and see what works, to collect data, to learn from the results.” In describing what such a culture looks like, she writes:

Whenever an intern takes a prototype out on the floor, I ask her, “What might change about this project based on this test?” If she is not willing or able to articulate a potential change, it’s not a prototype—it’s just a model of a foregone conclusion. At the MAH, prototypes have to be used to test a hypothesis, or to decide among options. This becomes more and more automatic as people feel the confidence that comes with making a decision based on data instead of arbitrary soothsaying.

Essentially, it seems like what Simon is trying to encourage experimentation to become the habituated and ingrained path, rather than outlier behaviour that only occurs when a new maze needs to be mapped or puzzle solved. I wonder whether it is possible to really make critical engagement and experimentation the habituated path across an organisation? What would make that happen? Other behaviours and habits would need to be effective in their automation, so that staff could rely on them and not have to be engaged with thinking through every action (which would be simply exhausting). So is it about getting the right balance?

What do you think? How hard is it for organisations to question their own assumptions and engage with ideas that could lead to new and more effective modes of doing business? Is this why the museum tech sector is so filled with conversation, because the changing landscape has meant that our behaviours and attitudes are not yet ingrained?

2 thoughts on “Do rats chase chocolate in your museum? Thoughts on organisational habituation.

  1. There’s a good reason that the digital museum people are able to think and act more loosely. Have a read of this interview with the maker of Chumby – the things that made software easy were crippled by the things that make hardware difficult.

    I’m going to quote a huge part here but read the whole thing. It is good.

    Physical stuff is difficult. And if you had the option of running or building a museum without a permanent collection that you were committed to preserving ‘forever’ then you’d be tempted to be an events space, community centre, or just operate online.

    The hardware model is radically different from the software model. Software is innately scalable; you can acquire a hundred thousand users overnight. Monetizing the user base in software is trickier, but most software plays start with scale and then worry about money.

    Because hardware requires the movement of atoms to acquire a user, scalability is limited by the rate at which you can economically and reliably assemble your atoms and ship them to the customer. On the other hand, there is a very natural point for monetization in hardware, i.e. the margin you charge on every unit sold. So money comes earlier and more often, but the growth rate is limited by pesky things like the laws of physics and the availability of raw materials and skilled labor to build the units. Noteable exceptions to this rule are concepts like Square, where the hardware was very cleverly designed to be so cheap that its cost was arguably lower than the cost to acquire a customer through other means (such as print advertising and mailing campaigns), and therefore it was cheap enough to just give away.

    Therefore, in hardware, the first question you have to ask yourself is what is your distribution channel, and how much friction there is in getting your product to end users. Ultimately, the size of that pipe and the monetary drag on transactions limits the growth rate of your idea. You also have to factor in the ‘boomerang’ costs, such as returns and customer support costs (you will be shocked at how many support calls you get from people who forget to plug it in).

    If you have an awesome distribution channel and a solid marketing campaign, and you have customers lined up out the door, maybe VC is a reasonable match. But, a typical Maker will start out selling stuff on-line, and possibly in boutique stores. The time it takes to turn capital into revenue will be on the order of months initially, and that’s a brutal cycle to finance with VC — all the money you have tied up in the supply chain isn’t adding any value to *you*, but you traded a lot of your ownership in the company to get that money.

    1. Seb, your comment has been stuck in my head all week, and I’ve been trying to work out why. My initial post was less intended to emphasise a culture of experimentation as an ideal model as it was to explore how organisations fall into habits. But your angle has stayed with me. Do you think this is one of the reasons why there is so much discussion in this end of the sector about the importance of failing forward, because the tech end of the sector is where institutions can actually afford to try new things that maybe some other areas cannot? (Trying out a new conservation technique could have very real implications for a collection if it failed, and objects were damaged.) This tension between literal conservation w/implied conservativeness, and new technology and ways of thinking is a very interesting one. How do museums identify which of their habits are useful and necessary, and which are just convenient and because they are “what has always been done”?

      BTW – on habituation, one comment that Andrew Huang makes in the piece you’ve linked to stands out for me. He writes:

      I think I ended up absorbing many of the skills required to build a product from start to finish because it’s very difficult to communicate requirements. The question was always whether it would be faster for me to do it myself, or to explain it to someone else to do and wait for them to do it, and then possibly have to re-explain it and have them change it.

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